Keeping focus: (a) biofuel myths; (b) hydrogen myths.
- 1. I thought this was pretty solid, and would invite comments particularly if you spot weak points.
2. Can you suggest anything that in a few pages does the same kind of let's call it severe honesty for our friend hydrogen technology as a motive source?
In our work under the New Mobility/Climate Emergency Project (www.climate.newmobility.org) -- and bearing in mind the tough 2007-2012 focus, it is important that we are clear on what is going to work, and why not, in this tight horizon. These summaries come in useful. Also for you I hope.
The biofuel myths
By Eric Holt-Giménez
Tuesday, July 10, 2007
The term "biofuels" suggests renewable abundance: clean, green,
sustainable assurance about technology and progress. This pure image
allows industry, politicians, the World Bank, the United Nations and
even the International Panel on Climate Change to present fuels made
from corn, sugarcane, soy and other crops as the next step in a smooth
transition from peak oil to a yet-to-be-defined renewable fuel
But in reality, biofuel draws its power from cornucopian myths and
directs our attention away from economic interests that would benefit
from the transition, while avoiding discussion of the growing
North-South food and energy imbalance.
They obscure the political-economic relationships between land,
people, resources and food, and fail to help us understand the
profound consequences of the industrial transformation of our food and
fuel systems. "Agro-fuels" better describes the industrial interests
behind the transformation, and is the term most widely used in the
Industrialized countries started the biofuels boom by demanding
ambitious renewable-fuel targets. These fuels are to provide 5.75
percent of Europe's transport power by 2010 and 10 percent by 2020.
The United States wants 35 billion gallons a year.
These targets far exceed the agricultural capacities of the industrial
North. Europe would need to plant 70 percent of its farmland with fuel
crops. The entire corn and soy harvest of the United States would need
to be processed as ethanol and biodiesel. Converting most arable land
to fuel crops would destroy the food systems of the North, so the
Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development countries are
looking to the South to meet demand.
The rapid capitalization and concentration of power within the
biofuels industry is extreme. Over the past three years, venture
capital investment in biofuels has increased by 800 percent. Private
investment is swamping public research institutions.
Behind the scenes, under the noses of most national antitrust laws,
giant oil, grain, auto and genetic engineering corporations are
forming partnerships, and they are consolidating the research,
production, processing and distribution chains of food and fuel
systems under one industrial roof.
Biofuel champions assure us that because fuel crops are renewable,
they are environment-friendly, can reduce global warming and will
foster rural development. But the tremendous market power of biofuel
corporations, coupled with the poor political will of governments to
regulate their activities, make this unlikely. We need a public
enquiry into the myths:
Biofuels are clean and green.
Because photosynthesis performed by fuel crops removes greenhouse
gases from the atmosphere and can reduce fossil fuel consumption, we
are told they are green. But when the full lifecycle of biofuels is
considered, from land clearing to consumption, the moderate emission
savings are outweighed by far greater emissions from deforestation,
burning, peat drainage, cultivation and soil-carbon losses.
Every ton of palm oil generates 33 tons of carbon dioxide emissions -
10 times more than petroleum. Tropical forests cleared for sugar cane
ethanol emit 50 percent more greenhouse gases than the production and
use of the same amount of gasoline.
Biofuels will not result in deforestation.
Proponents of biofuels argue that fuel crops planted on ecologically
degraded lands will improve rather than destroy the environment.
Perhaps the government of Brazil had this in mind when it reclassified
some 200 million hectares of dry-tropical forests, grassland and
marshes as degraded and apt for cultivation.
In reality, these are the biodiverse ecosystems of the Atlantic
Forest, the Cerrado and the Pantanal, occupied by indigenous people,
subsistence farmers and extensive cattle ranches. The introduction of
agrofuel plantations will push these communities to the agricultural
frontier of the Amazon where the devastating patterns of deforestation
are well known.
Soybeans supply 40 percent of Brazil's biofuels. NASA has correlated
their market price with the destruction of the Amazon rainforest -
currently at nearly 325,000 hectares a year.
Biofuels will bring rural development.
In the tropics, 100 hectares dedicated to family farming generates 35
jobs. Oil-palm and sugarcane provide 10 jobs, eucalyptus two, and
soybeans a scant half-job per 100 hectares, all poorly paid.
Until recently, biofuels supplied primarily local and subregional
markets. Even in the United States, most ethanol plants were small and
farmer-owned. With the boom, big industry is moving in, centralizing
operations and creating gargantuan economies of scale.
Biofuels producers will be dependent on a cabal of companies for their
seed, inputs, services, processing and sale. They are not likely to
receive many benefits. Small holders will be forced out of the market
and off the land. Hundreds of thousands have already been displaced by
the soybean plantations in the "Republic of Soy," a 50-million hectare
area in southern Brazil, northern Argentina, Paraguay and eastern
Biofuels will not cause hunger.
Hunger results not from scarcity, but poverty. The world's poorest
already spend 50 to 80 percent of household income on food. They
suffer when high fuel prices push up food prices. Now, because food
and fuel crops compete for land and resources, both increase the price
of land and water.
The International Food Policy Research Institute has estimated that
the price of basic staples will increase 20 to 33 percent by 2010 and
26 to 135 percent by 2020. Caloric consumption declines as price rises
by a ratio of 1:2.
Limits must be placed on the biofuels industry. The North cannot shift
the burden of overconsumption to the South because the tropics have
more sunlight, rain and arable land. If biofuels are to be forest- and
food-friendly, the grain, cane and palm oil industries need to be
regulated, and not piecemeal.
Strong, enforceable standards based on limiting land planted for
biofuels are urgently needed, as are antitrust laws powerful enough to
prevent the corporate concentration of market power in the industry.
Sustainable benefits to the countryside will only accrue if biofuels
are a complement to plans for sustainable rural development, not the
A global moratorium on the expansion of biofuels is needed to develop
regulatory structures and foster conservation and development
alternatives to the transition. We need the time to make a better
transition to food and fuel sovereignty.
With all good wishes,
The Commons: Open Society Sustainability Initiative at www.ecoplan.org
Le Frene, 8/10 rue Joseph Bara 75006 Paris, France, Europe
T: +331 4326 1323
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